Another year, another season-long compilation of comprehensive game previews!
The Titans will open the season with more fanfare than usual. While expectations are still fairly tempered (as they well should be) the team has garnered an increased amount of media attention this offseason. The new kid in town, GM Jon Robinson, has gotten to work quickly, remolding this roster to his liking and, from the outside looking in, done a very good job of it. National outlets paid close attention to the new running back group, and the duo didn't disappoint, rumbling over defenses during the preseason behind a retooled offensive line.
That's all well and good. But now the real competition begins, and we can throw away some (but not all) of what we learned the last few weeks. So without further adieu, let's dive into the matchups for the season debut, and sort out where the Titans should theoretically have the upper hand, and where they may struggle.
This will be one of the best defenses the Titans face in 2016. Along the defensive line alone, the Vikings have a bevy of talent and a coach who knows how to use them. Linval Joseph and Shariff Floyd form a powerful duo on the interior, with the potential to both stuff the run and disrupt the line on passing plays. On the edges Everson Griffin is a quality player; but I will have my eye on Danielle Hunter. Hunter is a second year player, and had a very underrated, solid rookie campaign. With the talent around him, he could blossom into a very good defender.
What does all this mean for the Titans? They will have their hands full along the offensive line. Rookie RT Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan on the left will have crucial jobs to perform, but it is on the interior of the line that the real onus will fall. Warmack, Jones, and Spain will have to maintain the integrity of the pocket from which Mariota can operate. Much like the Vikings, the Titans figure to run their offense through the running game. But a stout defensive front could mean getting into some longer 2nd and 3rd down scenarios. Ben Jones at Center will need to be aware of guys like Anthony Barr, who will likely be called upon to rush the passer on occasion. Mariota has an awfully quick release, but he will need some time to find the open man. On the back end of the defense, Harrison Smith may be the league's second or third best safety. His versatility can cause problems for QB's under pressure, as he has shown he can capitalize on rash decisions.
On the outside, camp phenom Tajae Sharpe and FA buy Rishard Matthews will face off against solid young corner Xavier Rhodes and Terrence Newman (who is somehow still playing). Young corner Trae Waynes will likely play the nickel role, and with Kendall Wright out, that figures to be a mix of Sharpe and Harry Douglas (when the Titans are in 3 WR sets). This could be an area to exploit for Tennessee.
The crux of Tennessee's offense, or it should be. The Titans running game could be the decider in this one. Against a very good defense, it will be up to the offensive line, Demarco Murray, and rookie Derrick Henry, to keep greasing the wheels of the offense. The line is greatly improved over last year's iteration, and Murray and Henry have both shown how dangerous they can be (I believe Murray's 2015 to be an aberration caused by Chip Kelly's apparent madness). Henry should play every third series, and likely later in the game if Titans can earn a lead. The hope is that the team can use him as a battering ram to wear down the defense and close out the game with some defense-demoralizing first down runs.
In the end, I see this facet of the game as a mixed bag. I think you'll see a fairly balanced back and forth of success from the Vikings defense and the Titans ground game. The Titans won't put up 200+ rushing yards (I don't think), but they won't be held to scraps either.
- Ben Jones (C) vs Linval Joseph (DT)
- Rishard Matthews (WR) vs Xavier Rhodes (CB)
Laquon Treadwell is the new kid on the block in the Vikings WR room. Judging from his college tape, Treadwell can be very dangerous in the open field with the ball in his hands. He's not the most rangy guy, however; and has sometimes struggled to separate downfield. Though Titans CB2 Perrish Cox is said to be "100%", he hasn't played in a little while and was never a sure thing to begin with. It will be an interesting battle on the perimeter.
The Vikings offensive line has been far from stellar. I liken it to where the Titans stood a few years back, where the team had a number of entrenched long-time starters who were on the downward slope of their careers. The Vikings offensive line starters haven't been great as a unit for the last three years. This doesn't materialize too much on the ground, as Adrian Peterson can often create by himself (more on that below), but it does manifest in the passing game. With an offensive scheme predicated on deep drops, and now with the threat of the QB scramble all but eliminated with Bridgewater's unfortunate injury, the Vikings represent an attack that could be the most unbalanced in football. They have not relied on the passing game to win games for them, but Dick Lebeau should be heavy-handed with the stunts and blitzes on passing downs; Shaun Hill could be a sitting duck in the pocket. Look for Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan to influence the game off the edges.
With Shaun Hill under center, and without a true down-field burner, the Vikings focus their attention on the underneath passes; mesh, curl, and quick out concepts. This should allow the Titans safeties to play closer to the line, and offer some support in the underneath zones, as well as in defensing the run.
Adrian Peterson is the name of the game. The Vikings offense has run through him for the last decade, and been successful at it. Peterson is a weapon all on his own, and it's unlikely that the Titans will be able to stop him. But AP, and more specifically the Vikings offensive gameplan, is not without flaws. Peterson's weakness isn't necessarily his age (31), but his lack of well rounded-ness when it comes to blocking and pass protection. Peterson typically comes off the field in these (often crucial) situations, giving way to guys like Jerick McKinnon. If the Titans can force the Vikings "off schedule" during early downs, the Vikings will be forced to trot Peterson off the field for the likes of less potent weapons.
How do they do that? They need excellent fundamental play. That means good efforts to contain the edges from the outside linebackers and safeties, as well as a killer game from Avery Williamson and co. Jurrell Casey will need to disrupt on the interior against the likes of Brandon Fusco and center Joe Berger, and get penetration behind the line. The Titans don't need exotic schemes to beat the Vikings offense; they need to wrap up the underneath passes and get the Vikings off schedule early on. A quick score would go a long way in forcing the Vikings to get away from their ground game, even if only to a small degree. Make Shaun Hill beat you with his arm.
Stefon Diggs (WR) vs Jason McCourty (CB). (Diggs is the buzz name in Minnesota, despite his return to the norm in the second half of last season. Can Jason McCourty keep the second year man under wraps?)
Adrian Peterson (RB) vs Avery Williamson (ILB)
The Titans brought back Marc Mariani out of nowhere, so that should theoretically provide some stability at the KR/PR position. The Vikings have plenty of speed on their return unit, so the Titans will have be disciplined on kick coverage. I'd say the Vikings have the edge in this facet of the game, even if they can't convert a 27 yard field goal...
This should be a close fought game. The Vikings loss of Bridgewater will hobble their offense more than their fans will care to admit, but they will lean even more on AP to produce early and often. If the Titans can put points on the board quickly, and get some early-down stops against the run, they can be successful. As I said above, force Shaun Hill to beat you, and you're likely enjoy the results.
It's a very close call for me, but I say the Titans pull out the upset win, 24-21.